Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: History made at the end of a joyless slog

A unique season ended with a special achievement.

Morecambe players celebrate with the trophy
Morecambe players celebrate with the trophy

Morecambe’s 1-0 victory over Newport County in the League Two play-off final at Wembley last Monday afternoon earned the Shrimps a place in the third tier of English football for the first time in their 101-year history.

It ended the most testing and arduous season of all. Played during a global pandemic, this behind-closed-doors campaign was an unsatisfactory and joyless slog.

On one level, it served its purpose. The wheels of the industry were kept in motion ensuring our professional football clubs did not grind to a halt, ceasing to function, while simultaneously providing supporters with a diversion during the most difficult times of our lives. But it was hard to attach any meaning to any of it when fans were excluded.

The best games compounded their absence. When the Premier League season opened with champions Liverpool edging a seven-goal thriller against newly-promoted Leeds United, instead of excitement there was merely pathos. Goals rattling in at an empty Anfield met with yelps and applause from players and staff, but lacking the ingredient we all wanted: the roar of the crowd.

And so it continued, month after month. Supporters’ frustrations at being kept away were exacerbated by VAR. For many it was a step too far. With every Premier League match available to watch on television, instead of showcasing a great league, the cameras merely highlighted the inadequacies of VAR. It proved a turn-off for many.

One of the reasons the end of season play-offs were so enjoyable was precisely because technology and those in charge of it did not interfere with the events as they unfolded. Surely the Premier League’s top brass are aware of the damage VAR is wreaking?

The pay-per-view concept was another PR catastrophe.

Dedicated West Bromwich Albion fans offloaded £45 for the joy of watching their team take two points from matches against Burnley, Brighton & Hove Albion and Fulham. Thankfully, the curtain came down on the experiment soon enough.

As an employee in the industry, it was never taken for granted that attending games during this period was a privilege. Even so, there was often a cloud over a match day that, in normal times, would not have existed.

Visiting Barrow for their first league fixture in 48 years back in September, after securing a triumphant return to the Football League, was a memorable trip. But the warm welcome that awaited at Holker Street was tinged with real sadness that players and staff could not share their historic day with the people who counted most.

Walking up to grounds along empty streets with pubs closed and silent at so many places that usually buzz with life on a match day was despairing.

At Fratton Park, I came across John Westwood, the Pompey bell-ringer who never misses a match. He was sat on the side of the kerb on the road leading up to the players’ entrance, bell in hand.

There were other grounds where fans congregated before and after games, lost for anything else to do. These may have been the more extreme examples, but a major part of life’s rituals had been taken away for so many.

There were plenty of bizarre sights too, not least when it came to away teams’ changing rooms during Covid-19 restrictions.

A combination of executive boxes, corporate lounges, stadium concourses and – in one case – a neighbouring cricket pavilion provided visiting teams with somewhere to change in order to maintain social distancing. Anyone in the portable shower unit business will have enjoyed a temporary uplift in custom.

On the pitch there were enough stories to keep most of us interested.

Thomas Tuchel took Chelsea by storm and made a mockery of the argument that it is difficult to make an impact coming into a job mid-season.

On the other side, Jose Mourinho may have finally burnt his bridges at England’s top clubs. It is hard to see him getting another top job in this country after an underwhelming season at Spurs. Carlo Ancelotti was another big-name departure, but on his own terms. Everton appear stuck in an endless and expensive sequence of managerial appointments that promise much but deliver little. Who will be the man to break the cycle?

Leicester City were rewarded for a fine season with a dramatic FA Cup triumph at Wembley, in front of thousands of their fans. Although, the game did not pass off without you-know-what having a dramatic say in added time.

Leicester City's Youri Tielemans celebrates with his team-mates in front of the fans

Not every fan returned with a sense of their surroundings. It was too much for some to maintain a dignified silence while players took the knee, with their peaceful anti-racism message. Perhaps a sense of unity and community spirit could be found in the response to the European Super League. It was heartening to see such widespread protests towards the ill-fated project.

If the game is to be protected from the bottom-up, then supporters need a greater say in how it is run. The self-interest of the Big Six was not allowed to cause any lasting damage. This time.

As the country finds its way out of the pandemic, we can only hope that football will move forward again. It still feels like a big leap to full stadia, but whatever the first games of league football in August will look like, it is a relief to see the back of the 2020/21 season.

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